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Before Night Falls

1 rating: 5.0
A movie

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Director: Julian Schnabel
Genre: Drama
Release Date: December 22, 2000
MPAA Rating: R
1 review about Before Night Falls

Before Night Falls 2000

  • Oct 4, 2002
  • by
Pros: acting, directing, script, photography - a sensitive masterpiece

Cons: none

The Bottom Line: I am surprised at the beauty in pain. SusiDee is speechless.

I have come to understand that my video choices are beginning to parallel my reading choices. When selecting a book, I go strictly by the cover, never investigating the contents until later. Which explains how I became immersed in the Mt. Everest experience I trekked for over a year when I picked up Into Thin Air, assuming it was a book about kidnapping.

A similar mistake occurred with the selection of this movie Before Night Falls. Previously I had read a novel, written by suicide survivors, titled the same. I thought this was perhaps a documentary of the novel, which was fully titled Before Night Falls: Understanding Suicide. As much as I would have benefited from that documentary, I found this selection to be quite interesting and managed to pick up some historical information as well.

Before Night Falls was adapted from the memoirs of Reynaldo Arenas, which was dictated to his friend Lázaro Gómez Carriles, who shared his interest in writing. In fact, Lázaro had begun his own novel, based on his experiences at his job, titled The Doorman. This was shortly before Arenas death, when Arenas was unable to sleep because of his illness. Arenas found Lázaro’s manuscript and sold it to the publishers as his own, causing a short rift between the life long friends. However, Lázaro, in the end, stood by his friend and helped him ease into his death, from AIDS, in 1990.

This is by no means a pretty movie, although it is wonderfully filmed. It is full of harsh realities, fears, rejections, imprisonment, love, revolution, poverty and pain. But even with all the negative vibes coming from the story involved, there is also much beauty.

Reynaldo Arenas was a bastardo, neglected by his mother and raised by his extended family. Left to his own devices much of the time, he discovered a love of the written word, and more importantly, his own ability to transfer his feelings to paper. As a young 15 year old, he left the poverty stricken family farm and traveled afar to join Castro’s revolution, fighting against the dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista.

By this time Arenas has discovered, as a pretty boy, that he prefers the company of gentlemen and he no longer believes in the revolution he was fighting along side Castro. Moving to Havanna, entering college, and submitting a manuscript to a writing contest, he won honorable mention and secured a position at the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí. This novella, or short story, Celestino antes del alba, would be the only novel published and released by Arenas in Cuba since Castro declared him an anti-revolutionary due to its subject content, and Arenas’ own sexual preferences.

By this time Castro has declared homosexuals as political outcasts, imprisoning all he can catch. Due to a misunderstanding, Arenas is arrested, but manages to escape. Unfortunately he doesn’t get far since floating to the Americas in an inner tube from Cuba is obviously impossible, and is once again imprisoned at the infamous El Morro Castle.

Two things happened at this time, Arenas gained popularity with the inmates because he was one of the few that could write. For a small fee (paper & pens), Arenas penned many letters home for the inmates. His payment of paper also afforded him the opportunity to write even more stories, which he managed to have smuggled out of prison.

I’m stepping out of the story for a minute to comment on this particular encounter – the smuggling of the stories from the prison. The smuggler, a quiet effeminate inmate by the name of Bon-Bon, was played by Johnny Depp, who also played the part of the handsome Lt. Victor, head of the prison and Arenas main adversary. I did not know, until credits, that this was Depp. What a remarkable actor. Of course, I won’t divulge anything about the smuggling, that is an experience of its own.

Eventually Arenas was able to leave Cuba and come to America, where he continue to be a successful author, completely ostracized by his former countrymen.

Before Night Falls was directed & co-produced by Julian Schnabel, a renowned artist. Among the supplemental information on the DVD is a snippet by Schnabel titled “Little notes on painting artwork”, where he takes us through his expansive warehouse of paintings and gives us commentary on each. As well, there is audio commentary by several involved – Schnabel, Bardem, the screenwriter & composer and director of photography. Quite a nice commentary selection. Included as well is the excerpt from Improper Conduct, a 1983 interview with Reynaldo Arenas and a behind-the-scenes movie by Lola Schnabel.

Acting by Javier Bardem as Reynaldo/Reinaldo Arenas was above reproach. He showed both a sensitivity to the character and a firm stance for Arenas beliefs. Other actors involved portrayed a wonderful range of emotions and dedication to the work:

Olivier Martinez .... Lázaro Gómez Carriles
Andrea Di Stefano .... Pepe Malas
Johnny Depp .... Bon Bon/Lieutenant Victor
Olatz Lopez Garmendia .... Reynaldo's Mother
Giovanni Florido .... Young Reynaldo
Sean Penn ….. Cuco Sanchez (note, as with Depp, I did not recognize Penn and will be forced to watch this again to catch him)

Obviously Before Night Falls carried an R rating for strong sexual content, some language and brief violence, brief nudity. It also received over 3 dozen nominations and awards for almost every category that is covered by darn near every award ceremony that is conducted. Bardem won many awards for outstanding acting, the soundtrack received very high acclaim through nominations and awards, and the film itself won countless trophies including being nominated for the PFS Human Rights Award. Frankly, I don’t think I have seen a movie that received such critical applaud yet little public recognition.

A good deal of the movie carried an almost documentary feel to it, containing live footage from the era. In addition, although I chose the English version with English subtitles, at times they reverted to English speaking with Spanish subtitles, which I found intriguing. As well, for the most part it carries a narration feel to it, as Arenas recounts his life from early childhood through his death.

This is a beautifully sensitive movie and it turned out I was as pleased with this as I would have been viewing the documentary regarding suicide. Reynaldo Arenas was a remarkable man. Listed below are a few of his writings:

Before Night Falls: A Memoir
Reinaldo Arenas: The Pentagonia
Mona and Other Tales
Farewell to the Sea: A Novel of Cuba
El Portero
The Color Del Verano (The Color of Summer)
Singing from the Well
Adios a Mama: (de la Habana a Nueva York)
The Assault



Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age

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